Parenting advice from a Chinese Medicine perspective by Stephen Cowan MD, FAAP, CAc

Adolescence can be a wonderful yet challenging time for parents and children alike. We asked long-time Building Bridges of Integration speaker and integrative pediatrics expert, Dr. Stephen Cowan (MD, FAAP), how parents can support their children as they negotiate the transformative process of adolescence, using the ancient wisdom of Chinese Medicine:

Preparing parents and children for changes during adolescence can help them navigate the deep mysteries of growing up. Nowhere is this more important than in the dramatic transitions through adolescence. Chinese medicine gives us a special lens through which we can support our children and discover the hidden significance of these changes.The Chinese word, Bianhua, 變化 (transition and transformation, Figure 1) captures the spirit of adolescence that causes fear and confusion for adolescents and parents. Bian (which means “transition”) is the pause that shakes things up chaotically for hua (“transformation”) to take place. One minute our child wants a hug, the next minute she’s pushing us away! The pictogram hua – shows a person flipping upside down. This topsy-turvy-ness perfectly illustrates the yin-yang principle embodied in Chinese medicine – when things are pushed to extremes, they will flip to their opposite.

The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet

The first step in preparing to help your child move through the stages of adolescence is to embrace the spirit of change yourself. Remember, parenting is a spiritual practice that begins right in the middle of your life.

How to do this? Here are some key points to remember:

  • Avoid falling into the ruts of parenting by assuming our children are always going to do things the way we taught them.
  • Growing up is an experiment with life! Allow them the freedom of making different decisions and re-discover your own flexibility and freedom.
  • When we notice the subtle changes in our child with an open heart, we become role models that can guide her through the stages of adolescence naturally and safely without embarrassment or shame.

The stages of adolescence unfold like the seasons. Chinese medicine offers a unique, ecological understanding of transformation based on the Five Element seasonal cycles:

The Five Questions of the Heart
  • Winter (Water phase) transforms into spring (Wood phase).
  • Spring (Wood phase) transforms into summer (Fire phase).
  • Summer (Fire phase) transforms into late summer (Earth phase), the season of the Harvest.
  • Late summer (Earth phase) transforms into autumn (Metal phase).
  • Autumn (Metal phase) returns to Water (Winter phase)

Each phase has deep physiological and psychological resonance in our lives. This Five Phase model (see Figure 2) can be very useful in generating practical advice for parents in the midst of raising their children. Understanding the adaptive style of your child, according to the Five Phases, can also be helpful. Read here to determine which of the Five Phases corresponds best to your child’s personality and adaptive style.

Five Phases


Water to Wood: Where Am I going?

Between the ages of seven and ten years old, the winter to spring cycle of transformation begins. Often one of the earliest signs of adolescence we may notice in our child is that his sleep habits change. Read more…


Wood to Fire: What’s New?

As your child moves further into adolescence, her moods may become more intense and volatile. Inwardly your child is asking, “What’s happening to me?”, as physical changes begin to manifest outwardly. Read more…


Fire To Earth: How Do I Fit In?

One of the natural ways children move through the transitions of adolescence is by building new bonds outside the family. The loyalty of friends takes on increasingly important meaning in a teenager’s life. Read more…


Earth to Metal: Why?

As children move further into the complexities of adolescence, bodily changes trigger increasing concerns about their personal appearance. Your child’s styles of clothing and hair may begin to take on quasi-religious importance. Read more…


Metal Returns to Water: Who Am I?

Phase 5: Metal Returns to Water: Who Am I?
During the great upheaval of change that is the journey of adolescence, we can help our children discover their own secret powers of wisdom and compassion. Identity begins to regain some sense of stability around 15 years of age. Read more…

The Five Questions of the Heart in Adolescence

Abbreviated excerpt from Dr. Cowan’s article, “The Wonderful Dangerous Path of Adolescence”

For more information about childhood and adolescence, as well as about Dr. Cowan, please visit Dr. Cowan’s website at